Looking at Russia from the wrong reference point

Psychological research suggests that human beings do not evaluate losses and gains in absolute terms but relative to some reference point. This came to mind when reading Gregory Feifer’s book Russians: The People Behind the Power, which was published earlier this year.

The book is 350 pages of unrelenting negativity. ‘Putin’s system turned out to be all about dictatorship’ (page 34), Feifer says, and is ‘not based on popular support’ (page 38). ‘Anger is never far from the surface’ (page 43). ‘Poverty is endemic’ (page 47), is worse than in the Soviet Union, and ‘continues getting worse’ (page 65). One can observe ‘the obvious disintegration of the social fabric’ (page 70), as ‘hopes for a better life steadily decline’ (page 73). Drinking is ‘helping drive men’s life expectancy down’ and ‘the population continues to shrink. … It’s getting worse’ (page 89). ‘Putin’s self-interested authoritarianism is driving his country off a cliff’ (page 213), Feifer remarks. He concludes that the West must take a hard line against Russia and ‘must have no illusions about what kind of country they are dealing with’ (page 348).

As befits a journalist’s work, Feifer’s book is anecdotal rather than academic, and he draws unwarranted conclusions from his anecdotes. Putin does in fact enjoy popular support (an 87% approval rating according to a recent Levada poll). Surveys suggest that Russians are happier than ever. Russia has enjoyed massive economic growth in the past fifteen years which has substantially reduced poverty. The mortality rate is declining, as is alcoholism, and the population is growing.

There are, of course, many bad things about modern Russia. But there are good things too. Feifer is far too one-sided. What explains this? I think that it may have something to do with the reference point he starts from. Feifer begins his book by describing his experiences in the Soviet Union at the time of the August coup in 1991 which briefly ousted Mikhail Gorbachev and ended with Boris Yeltsin forcing the coup leaders to back down. This is Feifer’s reference point – the heady, exciting days when he and others believed that the Soviet Union was going to become a liberal democratic, Western state. Seen from this perspective, the Putin era has been a terrible disappointment – thus the inclination to describe it in such negative terms.

My reference point is very different: it is the time I spent as a student in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Remembering the general dinginess, the difficulty of finding the most basic goods, the sullen and incompetent service, and all the rest of it, I cannot look at Russia today and think that the country has gotten worse. Despite all its flaws, it has obviously gotten a whole lot better.

Feifer’s problem, I think, is that he is comparing Russia not with what it really was at any time in the past but with an idea he had of what Russia could be, an idea which was quite possibly never realisable. The result is an unfair assessment of the country’s progress.


Foreign policy insanity

According to yesterday’s New York Times, a 2013 classified study examined the results of CIA experiences in arming and training rebel groups in other countries. The conclusion: ‘many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict.’ The only ‘successful’ example the report could come up with was the support given to the Afghan mujahideen which led to the toppling of the Najibullah government in 1992. But given the subsequent history of Afghanistan even this doesn’t look too good.

Despite this dismal track record, President Obama has given the go-ahead to the CIA to arm and train Syrian rebels in an effort to defeat the Islamic State and overthrow Bashar al-Assad. It is not as if Obama didn’t know better – he had apparently read the CIA report and didn’t want to support the Syrian rebels. But eventually he caved in to pressure from the CIA and the Department of State. He felt the need to show the American public that he was doing something. Thus, foreign policy, as so often, was subordinated to domestic politics, and the president approved a policy he surely understood was bound to fail.

Insanity, Albert Einstein supposedly said, consists of ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ If that is the case, then American foreign policy is insane.

One language good, two languages better

I live in a bilingual country, and I work at a bilingual university, where I teach in both languages. But bilingualism isn’t just a personal preference. It is also a political choice, at both a personal and a national level.

With this in mind, I was interested to read two recent articles which discuss how two countries with a significant Russian-speaking population, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, deal with the language issue.

In an article entitled ‘Kazakhstan: Wildflower Rising from the Steppes’, security consultant David Law discusses what he recently saw in Kazakhstan, commenting that:

 If the older generations of Russians did not receive any instruction in Kazakh in their youth, now in both the Kazakh and Russian language schools, the second language is taught. The younger cohort of Kazakhs and Russians is growing up bilingually and often trilingually. This is a testimony to the realisation that increasingly the best opportunities will go to those who can communicate with not only their fellow citizens in their language but also with the internationals who in growing numbers have come to find treasure in Kazakhstan’s booming economy. … Overall, President Nazarbayev, in power since 1989, deserves credit for his stewardship. While promoting Kazakh as the national language, he has been a champion of the country’s diversity. He has systematically defended the notion that Russian, the lingua franca of the Soviet period and still ubiquitous, should serve as the language of inter-ethnic communication.

Nazarbayev is a dictator, and it would be a mistake to idealize his government. In addition, despite impressive economic growth in recent years, Kazakhstan has significant economic and social problems. Law nevertheless notes that Nazarbayev has handled the language issue well.

By contrast, in an article in World Politics Review (subscribers only), American academic Nicolai Petro examines the situation in Ukraine. Recently returned from a year-long sabbatical in Odessa, Petro notes that the country is officially Ukrainian unilingual despite the fact that about 40% of the population speak Russian as their first language. He explains that Western Ukrainians see this as ‘a matter of righting a historical injustice’ and believe that failure to enforce the language monopoly will weaken the Ukrainian national identity. Eastern Ukrainians, however, feel that their culture includes both Ukrainian and Russian strands, and see such ‘Ukrainianization’ as restrictive, as attempting to erase part of their history and to diminish them.

Law describes Kazakhstan as having shown a ‘commitment to unity through respect for diversity.’ Petro urges Ukraine to make the same commitment. If Ukraine wishes to have a stable future, he writes, ‘the two core components of Ukrainian identity will have to learn to coexist on equal terms within one nation. This means recognizing that the Russian language and cultural heritage are integral parts of Ukrainian  identity.’

The Importance of Being Irrelevant

A recent trend in the financing of higher education has been to link research funding to evidence that the projects being funded have some practical or commercial value. One example of this is the United Kingdom’s Research Excellence Framework which ties research funding to a rather vaguely defined ‘impact’ assessment, thus requiring university departments to demonstrate the social relevance of their work.

For pharmaceutical chemists, metallurgical engineers, petroleum geologists, and many others, this probably isn’t a big issue. However, if like Lucky Jim in Kingsley Amis’ book of that name, you are studying ‘The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485’, you are going to find it more difficult to prove the social utility of what you are doing.

Frankly, I think that the whole process is rather silly. Take, for instance, my own doctoral thesis and first book, The White Russian Army in Exile, 1920-1941. The book is about a Russian émigré military organization known as ROVS (Russkii Obshche-Voinskii Soiuz in Russian, the Russian General Military Union in English), founded by General P.N. Wrangel in 1924.

General Wrangel
General Wrangel

There was a reason nobody had studied this group before: White Russian émigrés were regarded as historical dead-enders who left no legacy. This was a thoroughly obscure history of a thoroughly obscure organization, whose original members had all died off by the time I came to study it. Its impact on anything: zero.

Until now.

In a startling twist of history, ROVS hung on not just all through the 1920s but longer than the Bolsheviks. It outlasted the Cold War and returned to Russia. And more than that, it has suddenly this year grown back into an organization of political relevance.

The current leader of ROVS, Igor Borisovich Ivanov, was for a while Deputy Chief of Staff and head of the political department of the army of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic in Ukraine. In a statement he issued in September (a transcript translated into English is available here), he talks about changes in the rebel leadership which led to his resignation, and his dislike of the ideological orientation of the new leaders.

Igor Borisovich Ivanov
Igor Borisovich Ivanov

To get the full impact of Ivanov’s message, you need to know a little about the organization he heads and what it stands for. Equally, some of the backstage (or backstab) manoeuvring in Russian and Ukrainian affairs makes far more sense if you are familiar with the history and ideology of ROVS (see on this point an article I wrote a few weeks ago for The American Conservative magazine. ).

My esoteric historical study has unexpectedly become useful. When writing The White Russian Army in Exile, I never dreamed that it would be of any ‘use’ for anything. That wasn’t the point. Had I been forced to carry out an ‘impact assessment’, I would have had to say its practical value was nil. But I would have been wrong! Fifteen years later, having happened to have learned all about this particular obscure vignette in history has enabled me to provide a unique perspective on a matter of considerable importance.

In short, all knowledge is potentially useful and should be pursued as an objective in itself.

Here we are again

Here we are! Here we are! Here we are again!
We’re fit and well and feeling as right as rain.
Never mind the weather, now we’re all together.
Hullo! Hullo! Here we are again.

(Song by Frederick Wheeler, 1915)

Here we are again. The Canadian Parliament has voted in favour of sending the air force to Iraq to wage war against the Islamic State. This will be the fifth war fought by Canada since the end of the Cold War: the Gulf War (1991); Kosovo (1999); Afghanistan (2001-2014); Libya (2011); and now Iraq (2014). Since a few Canadian servicemen and women were also involved in Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia (1995) and the invasion of Iraq (2003), one could even make that seven wars. This is an extraordinary total for a country which enjoys almost complete safety from external attack.

Not even the Canadian government pretends that it’s going to win this war. Also, nobody thinks that the war is going to be short. We’re in for the long haul, we’re told, despite Sun Tzu’s observation that ‘No country ever benefitted from a protracted war.’

Pursuing a policy which you know cannot succeed is almost the definition of irrationality. So, what is going on in our politicians’ minds?

One explanation might be that the government really believes that the Islamic State poses a mortal threat to Canada. As Foreign Minister John Baird told the House of Commons, ‘The dark clouds of terror are gathering in Iraq and Syria, threatening to strike their thunder from India to Spain. We must not let this storm descend on Canada, and we know that it will if left unchecked’. But if the Islamic State really is so dangerous, why are we only sending six planes to deal with it? The fact that we are making such a tiny effort suggests that we do not really consider ourselves so threatened after all. There must be another explanation for our behaviour.

Moralism may be part of the answer. The Islamic State is ‘evil’ and thus has to be fought. ‘This is a struggle against a group of terrorists that rape, pillage and slaughter anything and anyone that stands in its way,’ says Baird, ‘Throughout our history, Canada has done its part defending the ideals and values that have made our country the envy of the world. Canada heeds the call. Canada protects the vulnerable. Canada challenges the aggressor.’ The war is thus not so much about defending ourselves against a threat, let alone about achieving victory, as about identity. It’s a matter of pride, of proving who we are.

It’s about proving who we are to ourselves, but it’s also about proving who we are to others. ‘Being a free rider means you are not taken seriously’, says Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Decoded, this means that we are waging war because we don’t want the Americans to look down at us. This is a longstanding obsession with Canadian politicians.

Anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers wrote that honour is ‘the value of a person in his own eyes but also in the eyes of society. It is his estimation of his own worth, his claim to pride, but it is also the acknowledgment of that claim, his excellence recognized by society, his right to pride.’ Seen this way, Canada’s decision to bomb Iraq is all about honour. The problem with this is that strategy is about applying means to achieve ends, but if honour is your end, you achieve it the moment you start bombing. Just by turning up, you have proven that you are somebody who fights evil and deserves your allies’ respect. After that, what you bomb, when you bomb it, how you bomb it, and whether your bombing achieves anything or not, is neither here nor there.

It is no surprise that we end up fighting wars we do not win.


Russia, the West, and the world

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